I had talked about metal music and recalling unpleasant memories in an earlier post. Wouldn’t you know it, I had the most vivid, controlled recall of my life a few days ago. I was alone, almost as if the part of my mind that controlled access to those memories had read the post, and I was fully aware.
As the memories unfolded, I expected my soul to cringe. I expected to die of mortification or to turn into a psychopathic killer that police would shoot in the middle of the street if I didn’t off myself first. I expected to disintegrate into dust or burst into flames.
I think it’s obvious none of those things happened. I started to laugh, actually. I laughed at the things that had crippled me for so long. I started to sing. In the middle of the night. I banged my head. I raised the horns. I danced with joy.
I sang the song of my people:
…Tamed with confidence of a brighter future
I found a flame in the burnt out ashes… burn out, burn out!
Fueled, these new shores burn, dark past lies cold
Shadow, my sweet shadow, to you I look no more…
–“My Sweet Shadow,” In Flames, from Soundtrack To Your Escape
Every time I think about it, I start to cry. Happy tears.
There are two obstacles that every writer faces in one form or another: Writer’s Block and Craft Fail. These two elements are inextricably linked because writer’s block is caused by the frustrated ability to articulate the writer’s imagination through craft. If writer’s block were created by a lack of imagination, it would not be called writer’s block. Writer’s are overflowing with imagination and are only hindered by their ability to put their worlds to words. An epic Craft Fail is usually the culprit unless of course, you aren’t a true writer.
I will share with you the methods I use to overcome these obstacles. I have a degree in Sociology—Anthropology to be precise—and one of the things I learned from university, other than writing novel-length research papers, is that the seeds of each discipline of human experience may be found in all the others. In plain speak, it means that just because you’re a fiction writer doesn’t mean you can’t learn craft from poetry or screenwriting or [insert genre here].
Busting Writer’s Block
One of the most difficult genres to write is poetry and I include song lyrics in this mix. This discipline was studied among the Druidic colleges and required approximately twelve years of matriculation for one to be considered proficient. What I learned while writing poetry is that our subconscious minds have treasure troves of images and ideas that are locked away. Our conscious minds have filtered the sights and sounds we experience into hidden sectors labeled with such names as “irrelevant” or “to be examined later.” To access this treasure, I perform what is called “stream of consciousness” writing. It’s a form of automatic writing that unlocks the doors to the hidden sectors of the mind.
The average human thinks about 600+ words per minute. Compare that to the 150-200 words per minute that the average human might speak. We write even slower, even on a computer keyboard. What are we doing in all that time with that incredible amount of processing speed?
The speed with which our mind processes things can cause problems in listening and in awareness. It can also cause us to overlook important details.
Technique: I’ve provided you with a few links below, including a video from K.M. Weiland that explains the usefulness of this technique. It’s something I learned while in counseling because I had an awesome social worker trained in cognitive behavioral therapy who gave me homework between sessions. If you want to find out what is motivating your plot, your character, or your theme then follow these simple steps.
Gather your supplies: a pen or pencil that writes fluidly; smooth, lined paper; a comfortable writing surface.
Find a comfortable and quiet place to write.
At the top of the page, write your prompt. A prompt is a few words about your subject. I might put at the top: Why is Erik in Boulder? or Women’s body consciousness – how does Laney express this? Even though this is steam of consciousness, your prompt is there to keep you on track.
Write. Keep writing. Do not edit. Do not stop. Even if the words “I need to get milk” pop into your head, write it down. Glance at your prompt when this happens as you continue to write. Did I mention Do Not Stop?
Do this for a minimum of five minutes but if you feel you can go longer, be my guest.
Application: Ms. Weiland brings up valid positives and negatives about using stream of consciousness in the actual narrative or dialogue, but that is NOT what I am suggesting. What I suggest is that you use it as seeds in your exposition, dialogue, structure and character development. Your subconscious mind is constantly gathering information and pondering the burgeoning work that is blooming inside of you. There is a method to your subconscious mind’s madness that, when the conscious mind is lulled to listen, will make immediate and world-shattering sense to your work. I’ve done this countless times, especially when my work hits a dead end. My characters’ motives take on an organic authenticity as my inner wisdom is given expression. It moves me forward and it will move you forward too. Make it work for you.
Now that you have a few pages worth of craziness, it’s time to review what you’ve written. I can guarantee that you will find gems among the dross. Pick out the things that make your belly quiver, your mind ping, and your heart swell. Your gut will not fail you. Believe it or not, this is where honing your craft comes into play. I told you they were linked! The more you do this, the easier it will be to plough through writer’s block and then if the story isn’t right, it’ll come down to Craft.
Overcoming Craft Fail
I write in several different genres: poetry, fiction, non-fiction, song writing, screenwriting, comic books, and technical. I have written poems as short as 25 words to a novel as long as 50,000+ words. I’ve read books and tried techniques from various experts in each of these fields. I’ve discovered that each genre has the same goal: to tell a story of fact, fiction or evocation – sometimes all three.
I think it is absolutely essential for writers, even those with years of experience and an arms-length of publication credits under their belts, to go back to basics. Some of my favorite books are from the Elements of Fiction Writing Series by Writers’ Digest because these books provide the “elemental” basics so necessary to a good story. They cover topics such as: Scene and Structure, Dialogue, Plot and Structure, and my nightmare: Beginnings, Middles and Ends.
I also use the Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, Ph.D., which is broken out into several units of structure including: 5 Dramatic Throughlines, 6 Conflicts, 21 Genres, 11 Master Structures, and the 55 Dramatic Situations. If you are stuck, this gem will pull you out of the quicksand and fish out your shoes to boot.
This is just the beginning of great ideas, commentary on craft, and online support you can tap into as a writer. But don’t stop with just fiction! There’s all kinds of websites out there for Flash Fiction, Screenwriting, Poetry, Blogging—you name it! And you don’t have to write in that genre to get awesome ideas. We’re all trying to do the same thing: tell a great story.
I’ve also been expanding into the screenwriting genre. I’ve taken two free classes from Screenwriting U that were absolutely fabulous. One was the “21 Steps to Rewriting Your Screen Play” and the other was an introduction to the Mini-Movie approach. Both address structure, which I find to be my main stumbling block. I’m not writing a screenplay at this moment, but the advice and information in both classes translate nicely into fiction writing, comic book writing and even the technical and non-fiction aspects.
Don’t be afraid to cross-pollinate your writing. Try new things that excite your imagination. Go back to the beginning and look at your craft from a different angle. Reacquaint yourself with the basics from another perspective. You’ll be grateful you did.
I’d like to hear about the writing tools you use. Leave a comment below with your favorite way to overcome writer’s block or hone your craft. Writers from all genres are encouraged to share. Stay Calm and Keep Writing!